PHILADELPHIA -- A masked man roams the hallways of Wells Fargo Center. He falls in love with The Process, and terrorizes (on social media) those who refuse to trust it.
Saturday night, the lights dimmed at Wells Fargo a little after 8 p.m. In the hours leading up to the Sixers-Heat playoff game, Game 1 in their first round series, nobody knew who would ring the Sixers' ceremonial liberty bell before the game. Throughout the season, the guest list has been littered notable names.
Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson and a host of other Eagles; Sixers legends Allen Iverson and Julius Erving have done it, too. There's been wrestlers, actors, film directors and comedians.
It usually comes with a pre-game announcement. Sunday, it was a secret.
Who could it be?
Speculation ran rampant. Who is a big enough deal that it'd be worth keeping a secret?
Will Smith? Sylvester Stallone?
It couldn't be Sam Hinkie, could it? (Spoiler: It couldn't, it wouldn't and it wasn't.)
Nick Foles? The 2001 Allen Iverson-led Sixers team that made it to the NBA Finals? The Ghost of Wilt Chamberlain?
As the game was set to begin, the lights dimmed, and when they came up a 7-foot-1, 275-pound man in a maroon suit raised his arms. The music wasn't dark and ominous, because there was too much joy in the room.
It was the masked man, the Phantom of the Process, Joel Embiid. The Sixers All-Star had missed eight straight games since suffering a fractured orbital bone. In lamens terms -- he broke his face. He's embraced the look -- Sunday, he received a mask upgrade. He warmed-up during pre-game shoot-around and looked fairly comfortable.
But, alas, he wasn't ready to go. He had fun anyway -- he donned the white mask from Phantom of the Opera, and rang the bell with the jubilance of a kid at a candy store.
Embiid watched from the bench as the Sixers seriously missed him in the first half of Saturday's game, as Heat center Kelly Olynyk was scoring at will and the Sixers had no answer. Well, Embiid is the answer. He's, at worst, the second-best defensive center in the NBA and a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. But he was unavailable.
Things flipped in the second half. Just a tad.
After a third-quarter shooting spree, the Sixers jumped ahead and it was never even close again in a 130-103 win. For the ninth straight game without Embiid, the No. 3-seed Sixers fared out fine. They've won 17 games in a row overall, and now hold an early 1-0 series lead on the No. 6 Heat, with another game coming at home on Monday night at 8 p.m at Wells Fargo Center.
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Embiid might be available that night, but he might not need to be. The Sixers truly don't need to rush him back.
On March 31, Embiid had surgery to fix his orbital fracture, and reports indicated he'd be out 2-4 weeks. Saturday marked two weeks. Embiid has been permitted to make many avability related decisions this season on his own volition, and if he's healthy enough to play, it's hard to imagine him wanting to sit out.
The Sixers would welcome him back with opened arms, obviously. He's an elite two-way center who will likely be named an All-NBA selection in only his second NBA season.
But if the Sixers' process taught anything about getting to this point, from sacrificing multiple seasons of basketball with extreme, purposeful losing; building a roster through the draft; finding under-the-radar, overlooked free agents -- a la Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell -- and turning them into pieces; to, finally, adding veteran pieces (Sixers don't win without J.J. Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, Amir Johnson and Marco Belinelli on Saturday) to make a full run at (and through) this post-season ... it's about patience. Taking the road less traveled.